[iDC] The Future of the Humanities

Christopher Kelty ckelty at gmail.com
Mon Jul 11 18:47:06 UTC 2011

On Sun, Jun 5, 2011 at 11:09 PM, Mark Marino <markcmarino at gmail.com> wrote:

> Hi, IDC-ers,
> Last summer I met a computer scientist who shared with me his hierarchy of
> knowledge.  In his schema, the sciences were at the top and all branches of
> knowledge and learning in the academy fell underneath.   By his account, at
> one time, due to a collective ignorance, much of knowledge was ordered under
> the Humanities, but slowly over time that ice cap had been chipped away and
> had floated off and melted into the larger sea of Science where it
> belonged.  By his account medicine, astronomy, and many other realms of
> knowledge had been relocated to their rightful place, leaving only certain
> types of speculative philosophy, perhaps a few arts, and other trivial or
> superfluous enterprises.
> <snip>
>  Can we propose imaginary courses that might accomplish these goals?   Or
> does this in effect undervalue that work that any good humanities course
> does already?

why do you want to do more teaching?  My sense is that the more you teach
the *less* respect you will get from your computer scientist, who probably
teaches half as much as you do and twice as much as people in your medical
school.  The problem of prestige in our universities is that the "highest
good" spoken of be the administration is always undergraduate education, all
the while scientists and engineers are negotiating to do less and less of
it. Meanwhile we are raising tuition (20% in the UC system this year) and
admitting more students than ever.  And they, for the most part, have no
idea what they are missing.

I've done a lot of interdisciplinary teaching in my time, with scientists
and engineers.  Two things are obvious to me:  1) scientists and engineers
are usually shocked, shocked, by how hard I work at teaching, and I kind of
mail it in compared to some of my (especially junior) colleagues in the
humanities and 2) these classes don't really count--they are perceived as a
fun distraction for and by scientists/science majors, in which they get to
do science but get humanities credit, and a not-real science course by
either the humanities or science students.  I recommend against proposing
them if only because you should never do anything the university
administration is eager for you to do :) voice of experience here...

I'm in for more radical solutions these days: first, scientists and
engineers should be called out on how little teaching they do (and I mean my
tenured colleagues, not the adjuncts and lecturers we are instructed to hire
by our deans in order to fill the gap) or administrators should be called
out whenever they claim that they value undergrad education. They don't.
 But second, humanities majors should be harder, be harder to get into and
stay in, and should include some part of the required science core.
Departments should be willing to experiment with tracks that include some
science or engineering as part of (on top of) a humanities major, and
negotiate with scientists and engineers to teach humanities majors in ways
that serve a humanities degree... not the reverse (which is what I think you
are proposing here).   I'd rather see us lure away CS students or biology
students with a better, harder, more prestigious degree... and that could be
what "digital humanities" becomes. Along the line, you might have to work
with scientists and engineers to achieve it, and that can be good... not all
of them or even the majority of them are like your computer scientist.

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